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Sony Pictures Home Entertainment

15 Hard-Knock Facts About Annie

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Sony Pictures Home Entertainment

Little Orphan Annie has been a part of American pop culture for nearly a century now—first as a comic strip which made its debut in the summer of 1924, then as a popular radio show in the 1930s, which spun off into a couple of film productions later in that decade and a hit Broadway musical in 1977. Though the musical version has been adapted to the big-screen a few times over the years, most recently in 2014, the 1982 version—starring Aileen Quinn as the titular orphan—is the best known big-screen version. On the 35th anniversary of its release, here are some things you might not have known about Annie.

1. AT THE TIME, IT WAS THE MOST EXPENSIVE MUSICAL EVER MADE.

Though the final budget varies from source to source, most agree that it cost about $40 million to produce Annie, with a large part of that budget (about $9.5 million) spent on buying the rights to the popular 1977 Broadway play the film was based on. There were also the not insubstantial costs of advertising the film and producing prints, which, according to a 1982 edition of the Los Angeles Hollywood Examiner, were around $9 million. Unfortunately, the movie’s revenue didn’t even come close to recouping its expenses.

2. THE CREATOR OF THE ANNIE MUSICAL HATED THE MOVIE.

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Martin Charnin, conceiver, director, and lyricist of the Broadway hit, had nothing good to say about what producer Ray Stark and director John Huston did to his play. When he sold the rights, he relinquished all creative control. The result, Charnin told the Hartford Courant, was this: “Warbucks, played by Albert Finney, 'was an Englishman who screamed.' Hannigan, played by Carol Burnett, was 'a man-crazy drunk.' And Annie was 'cute-ed up.' Worse, the emotional relationship between Annie and Warbucks was distorted. They even downplayed the hit song "Tomorrow'' because 'Stark thought it was corny.'"

3. JOHN HUSTON WAS HIRED TO DIRECT BECAUSE OF HIS SIMILARITIES TO DADDY WARBUCKS.

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If you wanted darkness, grit, and intrigue in your film, you got John Huston to direct it. The Maltese Falcon, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, The African Queen, Beat the Devil, ... Annie? Huston was an odd choice, but producer Stark insisted. To Stark, the grizzled, then-76-year-old director was the embodiment of Daddy Warbucks, the gruff billionaire who shouts, “I love money, I love capitalism! I do not and will not ever love children!” (Of course there is also the rumor that Huston only agreed to do such a far-flung project because he was desperate for money.)

4. ALBERT FINNEY WAS HARDLY THE FIRST CHOICE TO PLAY DADDY WARBUCKS.

While Bette Midler was the first choice to play Miss Hannigan (a role that went to Carol Burnett), there were many actors ahead of Albert Finney on the Daddy Warbucks lineup. Finney had Hollywood experience, but the stage was more his realm. Reportedly, Sean Connery was approached, but didn’t want to appear bald. Even Cary Grant, who would have been in his late 70s at the time and hadn’t made a movie since 1966, was asked.

5. “EASY STREET" WAS ORIGINALLY A HUGE, OUTDOOR NUMBER.

The first incarnation of the show-stopping “Easy Street” was literally performed in a street, with the three enthralling villains of the film—Miss Hannigan (Burnett), Rooster (Tim Curry), and Lily (Bernadette Peters), displaying their joyous greed against a backdrop of dozens of dancing street vendors. After it was shot, Huston decided it wasn’t intimate enough and, more importantly, the setting distracted from the three enormous personalities at the center of it. Burnett, Curry, and Peters were more interesting to watch just by themselves than in a whole studio full of performers. (You can see some grainy bits from the original version here.)

6. THE RE-SHOOT OF "EASY STREET" WAS MILDLY COMPLICATED BY BURNETT'S CHIN SURGERY.

After primary shooting, Carol Burnett underwent surgery to correct her overbite and align her jaw. When she was called back to re-shoot “Easy Street,” she had a new face.  As quoted in the Chicago Tribune, she told her director about her concerns. "Mr. Huston," she remembered saying, "Two months ago, when I went into the closet, I didn't have a chin."

"Dear," he responded, "just come out looking determined."

7. NEW JERSEY'S GOVERNOR SIGNED A LAW TO ALLOW CHILDREN IN THE CAST TO WORK AT NIGHT.

Annie’s climactic scene was partly shot on the Passaic River’s NX railroad drawbridge, which had been abandoned in the raised position in 1977. The scene called for Annie to climb the bridge like a ladder with Rooster following in a murderous rage. All of this took place in the dead of night, and New Jersey's child labor laws prohibited children employed in making films from working after 11:30 p.m. and before 7 a.m. More night hours would be needed to complete the shoot, and the state government was accommodating, with Governor Brendan Byrne helicoptering to the set to sign a bill amending the law, which now allows the Commissioner of Education “the authority to amend the hours of the day during which a minor may work but not the total hours.”

8. THERE WERE AROUND 500 DIFFERENT PRODUCT TIE-INS FOR THE FILM.

Annie’s merchandising began three years before the film was released. Producer Ray Stark knew that the whole world was anticipating his movie, and he intended to use that interest toward a licensing boom. Tie-ins included contracts with Crayola, Random House, Marriott hotels, Sears Roebuck & Co., Knickerbocker Toys, Procter & Gamble, and Ken-L-Ration dog food. The products would include umbrellas, wigs, lunch boxes, dog accessories, a Parker Brothers board game, a line of Marvel Comics, Annie ice cream, Annie cookies, Annie designer jeans, and hundreds more.

9. AROUND 8000 GIRLS AUDITIONED TO PLAY ANNIE.

Two years before the film version, Aileen Quinn was in the Broadway production of Annie. She was a “swing orphan,” meaning she was trained to play any of the orphans except Annie (who, at the start of Quinn’s tenure, was Sarah Jessica Parker). Auditions for the film began in 1980 and took an entire year.

The casting director had a clever way to speed the process along, according to PBS's “Lights, Camera, Annie!” Annie hopefuls lined up and each girl sang a part of “Tomorrow,” with the next girl picking up where the last left one off. Quinn was called back eight times until the production team was totally convinced she was the perfect combination of grit and sweetness. “I was completely in shock," Quinn remembered. "I didn’t believe it until the casting agent showed me the production schedule, and I was scheduled to appear on The Today Show at 7:00 a.m. the next morning. That’s when I believed it!"

10. FINNEY HAD LITTLE EXPERIENCE WITH SONG AND DANCE.

Finney was a trained Shakespearean stage actor and widely regarded for his dramatic roles. He’d only ever sang and danced once before in a performance, in the 1970 musical Scrooge. As a crotchety Scrooge, his singing and dancing came out more like cleverly inflected growls and splay-footed leaps. Annie didn’t require him to become Baryshnikov with the voice of Pavarotti, but it did call for ballad singing and a tap dance routine.

"One of my favorite memories of him is [Albert] learning to really sing for the first time," Quinn said. "He did that beautiful version of 'Maybe' ... As he was taking singing lessons on the set, I can remember him with a cigar out of his mouth and going 'la la la la la la la,' pause, 'la la la la la la la.'" This, plus Finney’s habit of putting bottle caps under his loafers to practice his tap routine, thoroughly charmed the 10-year-old Quinn. "He was, like, in it to win it ... so adorable."

11. THE WARBUCKS MANSION WAS A REAL HOUSE, BUT ONLY BRIEFLY.

It was hard to find the right place for Oliver Warbucks to call home. Many of the grandest homes of the Gilded Age had been turned into museums, and the others had been overly featured in other movies and on television. Then Huston found Shadow Lawn, a 130-room New Jersey palace built in 1927 for Hubert Templeton Parson, the then-president of Woolworths. It was designed by Horace Trumbauer and his assistant Julian Abele, considered by some to be the first African American architect in America.

Within 10 years, Parson went broke and his home was appropriated by the city. After that, according to The New York Times, it served as a military academy, a military hospital, and a school for girls, but never again as a private home. In the 1950s, Monmouth College bought the mansion and its 108 acres, and it remains a part of the school's campus today.

12. AILEEN QUINN USED TO TEACH AT THE UNIVERSITY THAT OWNS THE “WARBUCKS” MANSION.

Years after filming her performance in Annie, Quinn returned to the scence of her childhood stardom when she began teaching at Monmouth University. According to a 2012 interview with Entertainment Weekly:

"A couple years before I started teaching, I went there for a big fundraiser to help them raise money for education. So I went back for the first time and actually got very emotional. It’s that staircase that does it. After I gave my speech they had me go up the stairs and I sang “Tomorrow." That was so surreal. I was walking down that staircase again, and even though they had tables set up for the gala, I couldn’t help but think, “Oh my god, that’s where I karate chopped and that’s where I was on his shoulders.” I actually was flashing back, and that got our wheels spinning: this is an obvious match. There were some conversations afterwards and they asked if I would be interested in teaching, and I said I would actually love that. Next thing I knew, I was teaching a theater course. 

13. THE "ORIGINAL" ANNIE MOVIE WAS NOT THE FIRST BIG-SCREEN INCARNATION OF THE LITTLE ORPHAN.

As even the most casual fan of A Christmas Story knows, Annie was a radio program before it was a movie (and she wanted you to drink your Ovaltine). But that wasn’t even close to the beginning of America’s relationship with the sassy Little Orphan Annie. The original Annie as we know her appeared in a comic strip started in 1924 by Harold Gray. It was going to be “Little Orphan Otto,” but a friend convinced Gray to change it based on James Whitcomb Riley’s even older 1885 poem “Little Orphant Annie,” which in turn was based on a real orphan child living with the Riley family, Mary Alice Smith.

The comic strip ran for decades and limped along for about 40 more years after Gray’s death. Annie of the comics was Nancy Drew crossed with Dick Tracy; she spent a lot of her time fighting Nazis and uncovering communist plots. And those round, empty eye sockets? Those were on purpose, according to Gray. “The blank eyeballs served to enhance reader involvement with the strip: not seeing what is going on in the eyes of the characters, readers could impose their own fears and concerns into the narrative.”

In the 1930s, two Annie adventure movies were made. The Broadway play released in 1977 was the most successful incarnation of Annie since her days of being shot at by gangsters. It was followed by the 1982 movie, a made-for-television remake in 1999, and a 2014 reboot.

14. 10-YEAR-OLD AILEEN QUINN WON BOTH A RAZZIE AND A BEST YOUNG ARTIST FILM AWARD FOR HER PERFORMANCE.

It is indicative of how puzzled people were with Annie that they couldn’t decide if its tiny star was a prodigy or a freckle-faced misery. She was awarded the Razzie for Worst Actress in a lead role, but took home a Best Young Artist Award, too. She also received a Golden Globe nomination.

15. TIM CURRY SIGNED ON FOR THE PART OF ROOSTER BECAUSE MUSICALS WERE SOME OF THE ONLY MOVIES HE WAS ALLOWED TO WATCH GROWING UP.

Tim Curry was the son of a Royal Navy Chaplain and a school secretary. He described his childhood as “strict,” and that fact might have had an effect on his career choices. During this unedited interview, a very bored, jet-lagged looking young Curry describes his desire to be in Annie“Long time ambition really, to do a Hollywood musical. [They] were one of the movies I was allowed to see. I had a very strict childhood, but Hollywood musicals were all right.” But wait, if you want to see a tiny flash of the man who brought Pennywise, Frank-n-Furter, and Darkness to life, skip to 3:30, where he describes his character, Rooster.

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Hey, Vern: It's the Ernest P. Worrell Story
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Mill Creek Entertainment

In her review of the 1991 children’s comedy Ernest Scared Stupid, The Washington Post film critic Rita Kempley described the titular character, the dim-witted but well-meaning Ernest P. Worrell, as “the global village idiot.” As portrayed by Kentucky native Jim Varney, Ernest was in the middle of a 10-film franchise that would see him mistakenly incarcerated (Ernest Goes to Jail), enlisting in the military (Ernest in the Army), substituting for an injured Santa (Ernest Saves Christmas), and returning to formal education in order to receive his high school diploma (Ernest Goes to School).

Unlike slapstick contemporaries Yahoo Serious and Pauly Shore, Varney took a far more unusual route to film stardom. With advertising executive John Cherry III, Varney originated the Ernest character in a series of regional television commercials. By one estimate, Ernest appeared in over 6000 spots, hawking everything from ice cream to used cars. They grew so popular that the pitchman had a 20,000-member fan club before his first movie, 1987’s Ernest Goes to Camp, was even released.

Varney and Ernest became synonymous, so much so that the actor would dread going on dates for fear Ernest fans would approach him; he sometimes wore disguises to discourage recognition. Though he could recite Shakespeare on a whim, Varney was rarely afforded the opportunity to expand his resume beyond the denim-jacketed character. It was for this reason that Varney, though grateful for Ernest’s popularity, would sometimes describe his notoriety as a “mixed blessing,” one that would come to a poignant end foreshadowed by one of his earliest commercials.

Born in Lexington, Kentucky in 1949, Varney spent his youth being reprimanded by teachers who thought his interest in theater shouldn’t replace attention paid to math or science. Varney disagreed, leaving high school just two weeks shy of graduation (he returned in the fall for his diploma) to head for New York with $65 in cash and a plan to perform.

The off-Broadway plays Varney appeared in were not lucrative, and he began to bounce back and forth between Kentucky and California, driving a truck when times were lean and appearing in TV shows like Petticoat Junction when his luck improved. During one of his sabbaticals from Hollywood, he met Cherry, who cast him as an aggressive military instructor named Sergeant Glory in an ad for a car dealer in Nashville, Tennessee.

In 1981, Varney was asked back to film a new spot for Cherry, this one for a dilapidated amusement park in Bowling Green, Kentucky, that Cherry considered so unimpressive he didn’t want to show it on camera. Instead, he created the character of Ernest P. Worrell, a fast-talking, often imbecilic local who is constantly harassing his neighbor Vern. (“Know what I mean, Vern?” became Ernest’s catchphrase.)

The spot was a hit, and soon Varney and Cherry were being asked to film spots for Purity Dairies, pizza parlors, convenience stores, and other local businesses. In the spots, Ernest would usually look into the camera—the audience shared Vern’s point of view—and endorse whatever business had enlisted his services, usually stopping only when Vern devised a way to get him out of sight.

Although the Purity commercials initially drew complaints—the wide-angle lens created a looming Ernest that scared some children—his fame grew, and Varney became a rarity in the ad business: a mascot without a permanent corporate home. He and Cherry would film up to 26 spots in a day, all targeted for a specific region of the country. In some areas, people would call television stations asking when the next Ernest spot was due to air. A Fairfax, Virginia Toyota dealership saw a 50 percent spike in sales after Varney began appearing in ads.

Logging thousands of spots in hundreds of markets, Varney once said that if they had all been national, he and Cherry would have been wealthy beyond belief. But local spots had local budgets, and the occasions where Ernest was recruited for a major campaign were sometimes prohibited by exclusivity contracts: He and Cherry had to turn down Chevrolet due to agreements with local, competing car dealers.

Still, Varney made enough to buy a 10-acre home in Kentucky, expressing satisfaction with the reception of the Ernest character and happily agreeing to a four-picture deal with Disney’s Touchstone Pictures for a series of Ernest features. Released on a near-constant basis between 1987 and 1998, the films were modest hits (Ernest Goes to Camp made $28 million) before Cherry—who directed several of them—and Varney decided to strike out on their own, settling into a direct-to-video distribution model.

“It's like Oz, and the Wizard ain't home," Varney told the Sun Sentinel in 1985, anticipating his desire for autonomy. “Hollywood is a place where everything begins but nothing originates. It's this big bunch of egos slamming into each other.”

Varney was sometimes reticent to admit he had ambitions beyond Ernest, believing his love of Shakespeare and desire to perform Hamlet would be perceived as the cliched story of a clown longing to be serious. He appeared in 1994’s The Beverly Hillbillies and as the voice of Slinky Dog in 1995’s Toy Story. But Ernest would continue to be his trademark.

The movies continued through 1998, at which point Varney noticed a nagging cough. It turned out to be lung cancer. As Ernest, Varney had filmed an anti-smoking public service announcement in the 1980s. In his private life, he was a chain smoker. He succumbed to cancer in 2000 at the age of 50, halting a series of planned Ernest projects that included Ernest Goes to Space and Ernest and the Voodoo Curse.

Varney may never have gotten an opportunity to perform in a wider variety of roles, but he did receive some acknowledgment for the one he had mastered. In 1989, Varney took home an Emmy for Outstanding Performer in a children’s series, a CBS Saturday morning show titled Hey, Vern: It’s Ernest!

“It’s a blessing and a curse,” he told the Orlando Sentinel in 1991, “because it's as hard to escape from it as it is to get into it.''

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Epic Gremlins Poster Contains More Than 80 References to Classic Movies
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Ape Meets Girl

It’s easy to see why Gremlins (1984) appeals to movie nerds. Executive produced by Steven Spielberg and written by Chris Columbus, the film has horror, humor, and awesome 1980s special effects that strike a balance between campy and creepy. Perhaps it’s the movie’s status as a pop culture treasure that inspired artist Kevin Wilson to make it the center of his epic hidden-image puzzle of movie references.

According to io9, Wilson, who works under the pseudonym Ape Meets Girl, has hidden 84 nods to different movies in this Gremlins poster. The scene is taken from the movie’s opening, when Randall enters a shop in Chinatown looking for a gift for his son and leaves with a mysterious creature. Like in the film, Mr. Wing’s shop in the poster is filled with mysterious artifacts, but look closely and you’ll find some objects that look familiar. Tucked onto the bottom shelf is a Chucky doll from Child’s Play (1988); above Randall’s head is a plank of wood from the Orca ship made famous by Jaws (1975); behind Mr. Wing’s counter, which is draped with a rug from The Shining’s (1980) Overlook Hotel, is the painting of Vigo the Carpathian from Ghostbusters II (1989). The poster was released by the Hero Complex Gallery at New York Comic Con earlier this month.

“Early on, myself and HCG had talked about having a few '80s Easter Eggs, but as we started making a list it got longer and longer,” Wilson told Mental Floss. “It soon expanded from '80s to any prop or McGuffin that would fit the curio shop setting. I had to stop somewhere so I stopped at 84, the year Gremlins was released. Since then I’ve thought of dozens more I wish I’d included.”

The ambitious artwork has already sold out, but fortunately cinema buffs can take as much time as they like scouring the poster from their computers. Once you think you’ve found all the references you can possibly find, you can check out Wilson’s key below to see what you missed (and yes, he already knows No. 1 should be Clash of the Titans [1981], not Jason and the Argonauts [1963]). For more pop culture-inspired art, follow Ape Meets Girl on Facebook and Instagram.

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Ape Meets Girl

[h/t io9]

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